On Thursday, food production workers at El Milagro — Chicago’s most popular tortilla company — staged a temporary walkout, alleging years of workplace violations and abusive conditions made worse by the pandemic.
After leaving their shift early, nearly 100 workers picketed outside El Milagro’s flagship taqueria and neighboring tortillería in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, promising to escalate their protests unless management meets with them to discuss their grievances by September 29. They were joined by local faith leaders, community supporters and democratic socialist 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the nearby Pilsen neighborhood.
Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago worker center — which has been helping the non-unionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months — said that 85 workers contracted Covid-19 on the job last year, and five died. With employees getting sick or resigning, the company has been understaffed, leading to a widely reported scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area earlier this month, with eager customers lining up outside the company’s facilities to get their hands on however many tortillas they could.
Along with picket signs, the workers carried a giant burrito and tortilla chips made of carboard. They led chants changing the company’s name from El Milagro to “El Maltrato,” which translates to “mistreatment.”
“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers, it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” said Garza. The worker center also recently helped organize non-union food production employees at the popular Portillo’s restaurant chain, who staged a seven-day strike this summer.
The workers allege that in order to keep production going amid the staffing shortage, management has been illegally forcing them to work up to seven days per week, as well as violating the city’s paid sick leave ordinance and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.
“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez told In These Times. Martinez added that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees, without being allowed breaks to drink water.
“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” said Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for ten years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”
The workers also claim that management is advertising new job openings at $16 an hour — higher than what workers who have been at the company for years make. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, said veteran employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.
“The new people don’t stay for long because it’s too hard and too hot,” Martinez said. “We know the work; we do the work well. It’s insulting when you’ve been working here for years, doing a good job and new people who have barely been trained are making more than you.”
The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they have organized a committee and are demanding that management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff. The workers claim that despite issuing multiple letters to management, the company has so far refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.
When the employees who walked out of the El Milagro plant in Little Village attempted to return to complete their shifts after the protest rally — as they had earlier informed management they would do — they were locked out. Arise Chicago says this is illegal retaliation by the company. Upon learning that their colleagues had been locked out, five cleaning workers arriving for the late-night shift decided to join the walkout.
Salas said that when he and other first-shift workers went into work on Friday morning, prepared to walk out in solidarity with their locked-out colleagues, they were greeted by an armed security guard. “That is simply a tactic the company is using to intimidate us, and it’s creating a lot of fear,” he said.
As the locked-out workers reported to human resources on Friday morning seeking to return to work, they were joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez, whose district includes the El Milagro plant, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.
“We stand with you,” Williams-Hayes told the workers. “What you’re doing is not wrong. Stand in solidarity, stand up for your rights, do not be afraid.
Management promised to allow the locked-out employees to return to work at the start of their 2 p.m. shift on Friday, with no loss of pay, according to an Arise Chicago spokesperson.
El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment. The company has also faced complaints at its facility near Austin, Texas, where it was recently fined $218,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe machinery exposing workers to amputation dangers.
The struggle at El Milagro is reminiscent of attempts to unionize immigrant workers at Tortillería Del Rey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood 40 years ago. That campaign was led by legendary organizer Rudy Lozano, who, before his murder in 1983, famously helped build Black and Latino unity in support of Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor.
Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago’s strategic campaigns organizer, said the workers are exposing El Milagro’s “greedy” side. “In English, we say ‘the other side of the coin.’ In Spanish we say ‘el otro lado de la tortilla’ [the other side of the tortilla],” he explained. “It’s time to turn this tortilla around.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.